Cabaret reunites man with myth

By Theresa Smith Time of article published Jun 24, 2014

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Just more than a century since the first performance of the ballet The Rite of Spring caused riots, the life and work of choreographer Vaslav Njinsky will be highlighted at this year’s National Arts Festival


VASLAV Njinsky is often cited as the greatest male ballet dancer of the 20th century, but few people know that he was also a very good pianist. Actually, simply a very creative artist who happened to be a truly excellent dancer.

Apparently people weren’t really all that interested in Nijinksy the person, finding him nowhere near as flamboyant and mesmerising in real life as when he was on stage.

With the cabaret Vaslav director Lara Bye wants to highlight this huge divide between the audience expectation and the artist as a multi-faceted person and not just a stage persona.

“This man who was the god of dance, seeing spiders,” said Bye about the Russian of Polish descent who danced for only nine years and spent most of the rest of his life battling mental illness.

“He wanted to change the world with feeling,” said Bye.

The original idea to use Njinsky as a character came from actor/musician Godfrey Johnson (pictured), who read Nijinsky’s diary (written during the six weeks he spent in Switzerland before being committed to an asylum) several years ago. The cabaret itself spans a greater period, though, as the older Vaslav in the asylum looks back on his life

Johnson has worked with choreographer Fiona du Plooy to “learn the form of the dancer” and create a gestural language.

“It’s about the dancer who can’t dance any more, so how else are you going to express yourself? All of us are creative people so we know this question,” asked writer Karen Jeynes.

“I think he was interested in doing new things,” said Johnson. The play touches on how audiences responded to Nijinsky’s attempts to run his own company while exploring new ballet techniques, and to his erratic communication skills.

“To me, it’s about the spirit of the person. He could barely speak, he stuttered all the time, so we’re going for the spirit of who he was, occasionally incorporating his movement,” said Johnson.

He also brings his piano skills to bear, drawing on the music of Nijinsky’s contemporaries, the composers he would have been listening to and playing such as Erik Satie, Claude Debussy and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

In addition to Johnson playing music from the period, the cabaret will also include projected images, though very little film of Nijinksy exists. “Diaghalev deliberately didn’t want them to film the work (of the Ballet Russes), so apart from a six-second clip, he wasn’t really captured on film,” said Bye.

Instead of trying to give an accurate physical performance of the dancer, Vaslav is about creating vivid fragments of memory and flashbacks to a possible image of a very complicated and misunderstood individual with a very high creative quotient.


• Catch Vaslav in Grahamstown at the National Arts Festival from July 3 to 12 at the Library Hall, and at Kalk Bay Theatre from July 17 to August 19.



A NEW contemporary dance piece that references Vaslav Nijinsky’s iconic ballet, Afternoon of a Faun, will also travel to Grahamstown courtesy of Underground Dance Theatre.

Choreographed by Steven van Wyk, Cilna Katzke and Kristina Johnstone, Bok is set in a mythical, dreamlike world where forms shift and reality is questioned.

Bok explores the fluidity between the human and the animal and underneath the beauty of the surreal fantasy lies a distorted reflection of contemporary South Africa.

The all-star, all-male cast includes acclaimed performer Henk Opperman (Queen at the Ballet; winner of Dans! Dans! Dans!, pictured), William Constable (So You Think You Can Dance, The Forgotten Angle Theatre), Aviwe November (Cape Dance Company) and Martin Harding (Bovim Ballet), with costume designs by Fleur du Cap 2014 nominee, Marcel Meyer.


• Bok at PJ’s in Grahamstown at the National Arts Festival, from July 3 to 13.


ALSO IN GRAHAMSTOWN: In addition to Vaslav, Godfrey Johnson will also perform in the cabaret show Mr Johnson Presents at the Albany Cabaret Club from July 3 to 12. Armed with only a piano, his voice and wit, Johnson will transport you from the cabaret houses of Europe to the bottom of the ocean.

Johnson will also be seen in Karen Jeynes’s The Best or Nothing from July 3 to 7 at the Masonic Back. This drama is about the woman who gave Mercedes cars their names, Mercedes Jellinek.

He directs Jeynes in Pineapples and Casual Racists (a piece she wrote), which has nothing to do with Eastern Cape farmers, but is all about status symbols, which apparently pineapples used to be back in the day. Catch it at the Albany Cabaret Club from July 8 to 13.

Lara Bye directs Rainbow Scars, Mike van Graan’s exploration of contemporary South African relationships, which stages at the Gymnasium from July 3 to 12.

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